WASHINGTON – Astronomers call them super-Earths and they are abundant outside our solar system. But the more experts learn about them, the weirder our planet seems in comparison.
Planets the size of Earth and up to four times larger are believed to make up about three-quarters of the planet candidates discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.
Astronomers have eagerly cataloged some 3,000 of these planets in the hopes that they may point to the existence of life elsewhere in the galaxy.
But experts told a meeting of the American Astronomical Society outside the U.S. capital last week that while super-Earths and mini-Neptunes are common, they bear little resemblance to the planet we call home.
“Our solar system seems to be different. All these planets that Kepler has found, they are strange,” said Yoram Lithwick of Northwestern University.
“Twenty to 30 percent of all stars have these crazy planets.”
Super-Earths and mini-Neptunes that are more than 2½ times the radius of Earth “must be covered with lots and lots of gas, which is the most surprising result,” Lithwick said.
He studied about 60 such planets and found that they likely formed “very quickly after the birth of their star while there was still a gaseous disk around the star.”
“By contrast, Earth is thought to have formed much later, after the gas disk disappeared,” he said.
Not only are many of these planets hotter than Earth, having a huge amount of gas covering their rocky core would result in extreme atmospheric pressure.
“It would be like being below 10 oceans here on Earth,” said Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley.
Asked if life could exist under such conditions, Marcy told reporters that he had asked some of his friends who are biology experts the same question. In short, they were not sure.
“It is not impossible,” Marcy said. “We know very little about how life got started and in what environments it might flourish.”
Since Kepler cannot return any data about mass, astronomers have learned to study it through alternate methods, like making Doppler measurements of the planets’ host stars, seeing how they wobble as a result of the gravitational tug from the orbiting planet.
Planets with higher mass make for more intense wobbling because they exert a greater gravitational tug on their stars.
David Kipping, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, described his team’s latest discovery of a planet called KOI-314C in a presentation called “An Earth-mass world nothing like home.”
Located some 200 light-years away, “a stone’s throw by Kepler’s standard,” the planet orbits its star every 23 days.
The planet’s temperature is about 100 degrees Celsius, and it is coated in an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium hundreds of kilometers thick.
The planet is one of three in a mini-solar system, in which the cohabitants “kick each other, they perturb each other frequently,” he told reporters.
Since it is relatively close, Kipping said he hopes further study with the Hubble Space Telescope or its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope to be launched in 2018, could shed more light on its characteristics.